Not many people would list Pericles as their favorite Shakespeare play. Why? Perhaps because it is so infrequently performed in recent years and because it is usually eclipsed by such masterworks as Hamlet and King Lear.
But Pericles is by no means a bad or an unsuccessful play; it was Shakespeare’s first attempt at the genre of romance and the immediate forbearer of those gems The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. And although Ben Jonson called it “a mouldy tale” (likely because he resented the play’s popularity), Pericles enjoyed frequent performances between 1607 and 1641 (F.D. Hoeniger, “Introduction,” The Arden Shakespeare: Pericles [London and New York: Methuen, 1963], lxvi), and the quarto was reprinted several times. It may even have inspired a “novelization”: George Wilkins’ The Painfull Adventures of Pericles Prince of Tyre, Being the true History of the Play of Pericles appeared in 1608, “intreating the Reader to receive this Historie in the same maner as it was . . . by the Kings Majesties Players excellently presented” (Geoffrey Bullough, editor, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, Vol. VI [London and Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966], 492 94).
But Pericles does differ from Shakespeare’s earlier works. He was experimenting with a new genre, and it sometimes reads more like episodes of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys than his usual fare, perhaps because Pericles’ origins were similar to those of Hercules. Just as the modern day television writers gather and “enhance” ancient myths and legends for their scripts, Shakespeare annexed the popular legend of Apollonius of Tyre, whose earliest versions date as far back as the ninth century (Hoeniger xiii).
So far, this sounds pretty standard for the Bard. He borrows plots and characters from other authors and re-fashions the material into a stage-worthy play uniquely his own. So what makes Pericles different? Perhaps it is in the re-fashioning, the transition from prose romance to dramatic presentation. The original plot of Apollonius of Tyre (Shakespeare draws primarily from the versions in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis and Lawrence Twine’s The Patterne of Painefull Aduentures) remains more or less intact in Pericles, and Shakespeare seems to have made fewer alterations and omissions than usual to facilitate the move from page to stage. Much of the action is not easily stageable, so Shakespeare introduces John Gower as the Chorus to summarize and explain parts of the story.
Shakespeare has packed enough plot into Pericles for three or four regular plays. He serves up executions, courtships, incest, attempted assassinations, famine, shipwrecks, death by lightning, marriage, death in childbirth, storm-tossed sea-voyages, resurrection, pirates, a kidnapping, threatened rape, and prostitution. A modern film-maker would probably divide (and “enhance”) Pericles into an original movie and several sequels, with titles like Pericles II: Gower Strikes Back and Pericles III: The Return of the Greek Guy.
One reason for Pericles’ popularity may be its fairy-tale charm (the Grimm variety, not Disney). Fairy-tale justice is meted out to the true villains of the piece: the murderous and incestuous Antiochus, “When he was seated in a chariot / . . . and his daughter with him, / A fire from heaven came and shrivell’d up / Their bodies, even to loathing; for they so stunk, / That all those eyes ador’d them ere their fall / Scorn now their hand should give them burial” (2.4.7 12). It’s a strange death, as Escanes points out, but somehow satisfactory. The mutilation of their bodies resolves the irony of a “glorious casket stor’d with ill” (1.1.78). Their outer forms now match their private sins. Likewise, Cleon and Dionyza are burned to death in their palace by their angry subjects after the attempted murder of Marina comes to light.
And though some innocents do die (a characteristic of most Shakespearean romance), there are the corresponding happy endings for the hero and his family—Marina and Thaisa are discovered alive and are reunited with Pericles, and Lysimachus is granted Marina’s hand in marriage. As Oscar Wilde put it in The Importance of Being Earnest, “The good ended happily, and the bad ended unhappily. That is what Fiction means.”
Despite Pericles’ success, Shakespeare never again tried to compress so much story into “the two hours’ traffic of our stage” (The Arden Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, Brian Gibbons, editor [London and New York: Methuen, 1980] 1.Chorus.12). He did, however, recycle some of the plot elements in the later romances: The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale both contain attempted assassinations, shipwrecks, supposed deaths, family reunions, and even (as subtext in The Tempest and as a spoken suggestion in The Winter’s Tale) incest.
Nevertheless, once one sifts through the plot of Pericles, several interesting themes emerge, including the responsibilities and culpability of rulers and their followers.
The first ruler presented in the play is the tyrant Antiochus, who is hypocritical and corrupt. Reluctant to end his incestuous relationship with his beautiful and marriageable daughter, he imposes a test on her prospective suitors: they must correctly explain a riddle or be put to death. But when Pericles guesses the correct answer, Antiochus orders his death anyway. Antiochus cares little for the honor and well-being of his subjects or for anything other than his own indecent pleasures.
Shakespeare holds Antiochus largely accountable for the incest (presumably because of the king’s greater age and power) and also for his servants’ actions when they obey the king’s commands. We pity Thaliard as we do Camillo in The Winter’s Tale (though we may not admire him as much) when Antiochus commands him to kill Pericles. He is honor-bound to obey a dishonorable king. As Thaliard says, “Here must I kill King Pericles; and if I do not, I am sure to be hanged at home: ‘tis dangerous. . . . If a king bid a man be a villain, he’s bound by the indenture of his oath to be one” (1.3.1 3, 7 8). But while Shakespeare clearly sympathizes with Thaliard, he does not necessarily endorse the man’s actions. Compare, for example, Shakespeare’s treatment of Camillo and Henry Bolingbroke, both of whom defy their tyrant kings rather than act as dishonorable pawns.
In contrast, though young and inexperienced, Pericles cares a great deal for his kingdom and his people, and he worries that he has endangered both: “The great Antiochus, / “Gainst whom I am too little to contend, / Since he’s so great can make his will his act, / . . . With hostile forces he’ll o’erspread the land, / And with th’ostent of war will look so huge, / Amazement shall drive courage from the state, / Our men be vanquish’d ere they do resist, / And subjects punish’d that ne’er thought offence” (1.2.17 19, 25 9).
Pericles recognizes the danger then takes action to protect his subjects, removing himself—Antiochus’s real target—from Tyre and leaving the kingdom in the hands of a trusted advisor. Pericles understands the duties of a king and, like Shakespeare’s Henry V, realizes his people are the source of his power—a king is “no more but as the tops of the trees / Which fence the roots they grow by and defend them” (1.2.31 2).
Pericles lacks confidence in his ability to “fence . . . and defend.” He sees himself and his kingdom as weak, likening his father and King Simonides to the sun but calling himself “a glow worm in the night, / The which hath fire in darkness, none in light” (2.3.43 4). However, though he may seem somewhat dim next to more dazzling leaders (Henry V comes to mind again), he does manage to keep his kingdom safe and whole.
Pericles’ advisor Helicanus is a model of his kind. He is an honorable, honest, and faithful man who will obey but never flatter his king. He governs Tyre during the king’s absence but resists the temptation to assume the throne when the lords of Tyre pressure him to do so.
Shakespeare next presents Cleon, the governor of Tharsus. Cleon is not a bad ruler, nor is he actively good. He is adequate in prosperous times, but when famine sweeps his city, his only response is to reminisce about days of plenty and pray for an end to the hunger. He is grieved by this predicament but does not aggressively seek a solution which will save his people; rather than solicit aid from his neighbors, he cowers at home for fear that “some neighboring nation, / Taking advantage of our misery, / . . . [will] beat us down, . . . / And make a conquest of unhappy men” (1.4.65 9). Tharsus is rescued only by chance when Pericles seeks refuge there, bringing along shiploads of grain as a gift (or a bribe).
Similarly, Cleon fails to act as a just ruler when Dionyza tells him she has had Marina killed; he cries out against the atrocity but does not punish his wife and eventually helps her cover up her crime. Dionyza easily steps over the line that separates judicious rulers and tyrants, abusing the loyalty of her servant Leonine just as Antiochus abuses that of Thaliard.
As is usual with Shakespeare’s plays, Pericles contains a variety of pleasures: it is an adventurous and sometimes perilous journey over roiling seas, through courtships, and into marriage and parenthood, and—for the judicious or those who wish to have something to think over on the way home after the performance—there are questions about the responsibilities of rulers and their relationships between sovereign and subject, parent and child. Ultimately, Pericles is a play that will both entertain and enrich its audience.